US basketball star Brittney Griner has been convicted in Russia of drug possession and sentenced to nine years in prison after a politically charged trial that came amid soaring tensions between Moscow and Washington over Ukraine and could lead to a high-stakes prisoner exchange between the nations.
The 31-year-old Griner, a two-time US Olympic champion and an eight-time all-star with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, listened with a blank expression as an interpreter translated the verdict by Judge Anna Sotnikova.
Earlier in the session, with a conviction all but certain, an emotional Griner made a final appeal to the court for leniency. She said she had no intention to break the law by bringing vape cartridges with cannabis oil when she flew to Moscow in February to play basketball in the city of Yekaterinburg.
“I want to apologise to my team-mates, my club, my fans and the city of (Yekaterinburg) for my mistake that I made and the embarrassment that I brought on them,” Griner said, her voice cracking. “I want to also apologise to my parents, my siblings, the Phoenix Mercury organisation back at home, the amazing women of the WNBA, and my amazing spouse back at home.”
Under Russian law, the 31-year-old Griner faced up to 10 years in prison, but judges have considerable latitude on sentencing.
If she does not go free, attention will turn to the possibility of a high-stakes prisoner swap that was proposed last week by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to his Russian counterpart.
Griner said she made an honest mistake in bringing the vape cartridges into Russia, adding: “I hope in your ruling it does not end my life.”
Griner said Yekaterinburg, a city east of the Ural Mountains, had become her second home.
“I had no idea that the team, the cities, the fans, my teammates would make such a great impression on me over the six and a half years that I spent here,” she said. “I remember vividly coming out of the gym and all the little girls that were in the stands there waiting on me, and that’s what kept making me come back here.
Prosecutor Nikolai Vlasenko insisted that Griner packed the cannabis oil deliberately, and he asked the court to hand Briner a fine of 1-million rubles (about £13,400) in addition to the prison sentence.
Lawyers for the Phoenix Mercury center and two-time Olympic gold medallist have sought to bolster Griner’s contention that she had no criminal intent and that the canisters ended up in her luggage by mistake.
They presented character witnesses from the Yekaterinburg team that she plays for in the WNBA offseason and written testimony from a doctor, who said he prescribed her cannabis for pain treatment from injuries sustained in her basketball career.
Her lawyer, Maria Blagovolina, argued that Griner used the cannabis only in Arizona, where medical marijuana is legal.
She emphasised that Griner was packing in haste after a gruelling flight and suffering from the consequences of Covid-19. Blagovolina also pointed out that the analysis of cannabis found in Griner’s possession was flawed and violated legal procedures.